Haggai 2:1-4 (NET)
On the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the Lord’s message came through the prophet Haggai again: 2 “Ask the following questions to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, the high priest Joshua son of Jehozadak, and the remnant of the people: 3 ‘Who among you survivors saw the former splendour of this temple? How does it look to you now? Isn’t it nothing by comparison?’ 4 Even so, take heart, Zerubbabel,” decrees the Lord. “Take heart, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest. And take heart all you citizens of the land,” decrees the Lord, “and begin to work. For I am with you,” decrees the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
John 16:16-33 (NLT)
16 “In a little while you won’t see me anymore. But a little while after that, you will see me again.”
17 Some of the disciples asked each other, “What does he mean when he says, ‘In a little while you won’t see me, but then you will see me,’ and ‘I am going to the Father’? 18 And what does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand.”
19 Jesus realized they wanted to ask him about it, so he said, “Are you asking yourselves what I meant? I said in a little while you won’t see me, but a little while after that you will see me again. 20 I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn over what is going to happen to me, but the world will rejoice. You will grieve, but your grief will suddenly turn to wonderful joy. 21 It will be like a woman suffering the pains of labour. When her child is born, her anguish gives way to joy because she has brought a new baby into the world. 22 So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again; then you will rejoice, and no one can rob you of that joy. 23 At that time you won’t need to ask me for anything. I tell you the truth, you will ask the Father directly, and he will grant your request because you use my name. 24 You haven’t done this before. Ask, using my name, and you will receive, and you will have abundant joy.
25 “I have spoken of these matters in figures of speech, but soon I will stop speaking figuratively and will tell you plainly all about the Father. 26 Then you will ask in my name. I’m not saying I will ask the Father on your behalf, 27 for the Father himself loves you dearly because you love me and believe that I came from God. 28 Yes, I came from the Father into the world, and now I will leave the world and return to the Father.”
29 Then his disciples said, “At last you are speaking plainly and not figuratively. 30 Now we understand that you know everything, and there’s no need to question you. From this we believe that you came from God.”
31 Jesus asked, “Do you finally believe? 32 But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when you will be scattered, each one going his own way, leaving me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. 33 I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”
Our first reading is a short part of a rather obscure book towards the end of the Old Testament. It tells of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. The first temple was built by Solomon at the height of the power and wealth of the land of Israel, and it was a remarkable building. Solomon tried to honour the greatness of Israel’s God in the splendour of the Temple. It was an attempt to create a home fit for their Lord. However, when Judah were defeated by the Babylonians and taken into exile, the Temple was destroyed and left as rubble. If you were around in 2001 and can remember the horror of watching the World Trade Centre towers fall, or if you remember the grief of Parisiennes as they watched Notre Dame burn last year, you have some small inkling of the shock and grief this would have caused.
Some decades later, when the Jews began to return from Exile, they gradually rebuilt Jerusalem. They decided to build a second Temple and this was a bittersweet experience for those who remembered the old city and the old Temple. It was, of course, a cause for celebration that finally they were home and life could begin again in the city. But the city now was not the city then. The Second Temple was but a poor shadow of that first great temple built by Solomon. It is into this situation of celebration and sadness, hope and grief, that God sends his message through Haggai: Take heart, get on with the work I have given you, I am with you…
I was thinking of those returning exiles the other day. As we emerge from lockdown and attempt to rebuild our lives, businesses, communities and churches in this new era of coronavirus, it is both a time of celebration and a time of sorrow. It is so wonderful to be able to begin to gather and restart some of the ordinary activities of life. But this also reminds us both of how far we are from our old normal and how much has been lost since March.
Businesses and charities who have worked hard for financial sustainability find themselves struggling for survival again. Some have even closed and staff have lost employment. School staff who have worked so hard to teach their pupils will find so much needs relearned when schools start back next week. Community groups who have been successfully supporting young people or the elderly or those who have other forms of need find themselves wondering how on earth to begin that work afresh. Churches who were thriving hubs of intergenerational worship and activity wonder how any of that might be possible now…
As a church leader, I will confess that some days I look at what we are doing now, compared to what we were doing last February, and feel so sad. I miss our Stay and Play groups and Messy Church and Lunch Club and Job Club and Oasis. I miss our singing and chatting and marathon-length sharing of the Peace in worship. I miss baptisms and weddings. Jo and I have done far too many funerals. I have missed all that happens during Holy Week and Easter, our Family Summer Lunch Club, the Summer Gala and oh how I have missed Holiday Club…
Of course, what we have done – our faithfulness in prayer and worship, our pastoral care for one another, our creative ways of sharing worship online or by post and the herculean efforts of the Holiday Club team to offer a virtual Holiday Club in a Box instead – are well worth celebrating. But sometimes, I feel like the returning exiles who despite knowing that they have put their very best into building this second temple, cannot help grieving for the one they knew before. How can we ever build what we had six months ago?
If you ever feel a bit like this too, it is to us that Haggai’s message comes afresh. Take heart. Take heart, dear friends, get working, for God is with us. We may not get back to what was normal before, but our call to love God and love God’s people has not changed. People still need to hear about Jesus, people still need to know that they matter to God, there is still injustice to be tackled and hurts to be healed. It might look a little different right now, but the work is still there. Take heart, take heart, for God is with us…
And as I write this, I got a message from a congregation member about a church which is doing Inside-Outside Church in their churchyard – a day of quiet prayer, family activity, churchyard maintenance and night prayer – with people coming and going over the time. And suddenly I am excited. Maybe some of what we have stopped may not be able to restart, but perhaps we can do other wonderful things instead. In the end, the time of Exile was a hugely fruitful time for the people of God. At times, in the middle of it, I bet it felt awful. But nonetheless, God was with them, their work matters centuries later, and take heart – for us, it may just be the same!
Blessed are you, eternal God,
to be praised and glorified for ever.
Hear us as we pray for your Church:
make us all one, that the world may believe.
Grant that every member of the Church
may truly and humbly serve you:
that the life of Christ may be revealed in us.
Strengthen all who minister in Christ’s name:
give them courage to proclaim your Gospel.
Inspire and lead those who hold authority
in the nations of the world:
guide them in the ways of justice and peace.
Make us alive to the needs of our community:
help us to share each other’s joys and burdens.
Look with kindness on our homes and families:
grant that your love may grow in our hearts.
Deepen our compassion for all who suffer from sickness,
grief or trouble:
in your presence may they find their strength.
We remember those who have died:
Father, into your hands we commend them.
We praise you for all your saints who have entered
your eternal glory:
bring us all to share in your heavenly kingdom.